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Q&A: Advice For Beginners From Mike Wydra

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As a beginning golfer that is addicted beyond obsession with this wonderful sport, the search for nuggets of knowledge and insight into how to become a better player has been a passion of mine.

I was extremely fortunate that early in my struggles, I became a student of Coach Mike Wydra, UCSD head golf coach and one of a select few inductees to the Golf Coach Association Hall of Fame.

I recently sat down with him to pick his prodigious golf brain on just HOW a beginning golfer should approach learning the game, something I feel that has been somewhat neglected in existing literature.

Neil Crutchfield: First thing I wanted to ask you, what should beginning golfers be most aware of?

Mike Wydra: Golf is a technique-oriented game and people who have good hand-eye coordination don’t always excel at it. Probably the worst student I ever had was an Olympic decathlete who was a fantastic athlete but who wasn’t a good listener. He wanted to do what he felt was correct and he wasn’t interested in the technique — he thought he could conquer it like he’d conquered everything else, and so he became really quite a bad player as a result. So once you understand that there is a very specific technique, that there is something that you need to do and you need to learn it and you’re enamored with that, that’s a big deal.

NC: It sounds like you have to be really open to being wrong for a long time before you get it right.

MW: It’s a very frustrating sport — if you can’t take a little failure, golf’s not for you. I think that’s why you see so many people in the game who are of high character. They’ve gone through that. They understand that they have to persevere and you’ll come out the other side a better golfer and maybe even a better person because of it.

NC: Along these lines, what mindset should a beginning gofer adopt when striking out to learn the game? What kind of expectations?

MW: I think they key to that is where you are in your life. Your age, your body size and type, your flexibility, your coordination those kinds of things. How quick, fast and strong are you? If your talent set is limited there’s certainly lots of things you can still do to be very good at it, you shouldn’t sell yourself short. It depends upon more than anything else on your goals, what you want to do, and how often you’re willing to practice to get it done.

Your expectations — I’m borrowing this from Hogan’s book — that anyone of average body type, size and intelligence and who goes about it seriously I think should have no problem breaking 80 within a relatively short time. I would say between a year and two is very reasonable.

Mike Wydra Advice

NC: What are common pitfalls that most beginning golfers encounter?

MW: Adults when they take the game up and they don’t want to embarrass themselves on the first tee. What happens to them then is that they get good enough at their long game quickly enough so that they could play if they had a short game, but actually they have just waited to embarrass themselves until they get to the green! It’s almost more frustrating to be right there and you can’t close the deal. So, all aspects of your game need to rise simultaneously.

NC: So you think there should be about a 50/50 split in practice between irons/woods and short game?

MW: I would say that the better you get the more time you spend within 50 yards of the green and certainly if you’re interested in scoring that’s a big, big part of what you need to do. You should get 50 yards away and say, “Oh boy, now I’m going to show everybody.” And most people get close to the green and say, “Oh no I hope I don’t mess it up.”

NC: Please don’t skull it!

MW: Exactly! So what I tell most people is that when you’re at the range you should hit half of your balls with your most lofted wedge and your driver and then the other half of the balls you should hit with all of your other clubs combined. And putting is another thing unto itself. The driver and the shortest wedge, those are the things you’ll need the most.

NC: At what point in a golfer’s learning process should they begin taking lessons? Getting fitted for a set of clubs?

MW: Well, it depends. Obviously there’s the monetary thing. But if you begin by playing poorly, if you just do what’s natural and you go out there and see how good you are before you get lessons, basically what happens is that you develop bad habits and then when the instructor gets you, the process is both getting the bad stuff out and the good stuff in at the same time which slows things down.

Club fitting — when you first get started you’re going to be very hard on your golf clubs. Your first set of clubs, it’s not that important to have really good clubs. A good piece of advice: It’s better to get a high-quality brand of club that’s used rather than something that’s shiny and new but maybe low quality.

NC: What should a beginning golfer look for in an instructor when looking for lessons?

MW: I think almost universally the best combination is someone who can play and someone who can teach. If you can find an instructor who you’ve checked out their resume and you know that they have played at a high level and they’ve taught at a high level, so you look at do they have successful students who have won tournaments? That’s the best possible combo.

NC: What are the most important principles to developing a solid, repeatable swing?

MW: All of the best players in the world have certain things in common. So if you see a Jim Furyk and you see a Rory McIlroy and you see the two swings and you think “Oh my god nothing could be more different than those two swings!” I would say that if you looked at them from halfway down in the downswing to halfway through the follow-through they look almost exactly the same. So if you look at videos and sequence photos and you see that one person’s doing one thing and that another person’s doing another thing, well then that’s style. But if you see them and everyone’s doing the same thing, that’s fundamental.

NC: What you say your top three to five most important fundamentals are?

MW: Grip, absolutely. There’s an old saying that occasionally you’ll see someone who’s a pretty good player who has a bad grip but you’ll never see someone who has a good grip that isn’t a good player.

Mike Wydra Grip

If I go out to dinner with someone that says they’re a golfer I say “Show me your grip” — I can tell them normally within a shot or two what their index is just by looking at it. They always seem shocked by that but really it tells a lot about what is going on –- nearly everybody puts their hands on the club either poorly or improperly and they’re making it harder for themselves.

Second –- everyone is a scooping bastard. I mean, if you’ve ever taken a shoveful of dirt and thrown it over your shoulder or flipped a burger on a grill your hand-eye coordination is telling you that ball that you just topped you need to get under the next one better — and that’s exactly the opposite of what you need to do.

And that speaks to the flat left wrist. If you’re going to be ahead of it the only way that you can square the club up with a good grip is to change your wrist as you go through –- to supinate your wrist. If we went to Torrey Pines today and we saw high-speed photos of everyone hitting the ball off the first tee, we might not see a perfect one all day. But if you went to the final round of a PGA Tour event and took high-speed photos you wouldn’t see one all day long that wasn’t absolutely perfect.

NC: How can beginning golfers learn how to learn in between lessons when our coach isn’t around?

MW: Basically, you have to be a good observer. The tendency is to have an emotional reaction to every shot you hit. You cannot be mad, you cannot be sad, you cannot be glad about anything. But to first say, “What did the club do the ball to make the ball do that?” and then to understand the physics of impact and secondly say, “What did my body do to make the club do what it just did?” If you just jump from the shot right back to your swing it can be very confusing to the beginning player. So you have to really stop and say, “Woah, what just happened there? I sliced it that much, the club was that open? OK now, what could I have done that could have made the club be that open?”

So be a good observer, understand the physics of impact and then once you know the cause and effect relationships you can make big, very valid adjustments quickly and easily.

NC: What parting advice would you like to give to my fellow newbie golfers?

MW: A little knowledge is dangerous. You should try to learn everything you can about the game, really become a student of the game so you’ll enjoy every practice session you have, you’ll get better every time you go out, and you’ll continue to learn and continue to improve really for your entire life. That’s the thing -– if you don’t know why you hit a bad shot, you’ll continue to hit the bad shots. So if you’re not interested in knowing as much as you can about the game, we’ll just have another beer, buy the newest driver that’s out there…

NC: Flirt with the cart girl…

MW: That whole kinda thing. A lot of people say, “Ahh I’m just out for the exercise.” What a load of bull that is. Everybody would give almost anything to get better but they’re afraid to take their ego and put it on the backburner. So if you really want to approach the game properly get some quality instruction and enjoy the process of getting better, and you’ll be a golfer for life.

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Neil Crutchfield picked up the sport of golf at the tender age of 34 in 2012 and has been completely infatuated ever since, much to the chagrin of his wife and bank account. Currently, he is a 11 and working hard to get down to being a single-digit handicapper, with the ultimate goal of being scratch.

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Nimrod

    Jul 25, 2013 at 6:11 am

    Man I wish I could’ve been breaking 80 after a year and a half

  2. marc james

    Jul 22, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Awesome read. He gives lessons at the range that’s only 5 minutes away from me! Small world. I’ve witnessed him giving lessons to junior players and has a very calm vibe about him. Very nice guy from what I observed.

    • Neil

      Jul 22, 2013 at 3:32 pm

      I’m there pretty much every day – and yeah he’s a cool dude. If you take lessons tell him you saw this article. 🙂

  3. naflack

    Jul 21, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    whats the best way to get your wife to play good golf?

    always leave room for optimism by putting it off another year.

  4. Austin

    Jul 20, 2013 at 6:59 am

    would be interested in hearing/seeing his explanation for a proper grip. thanks.

    • yo!

      Jul 20, 2013 at 8:07 pm

      well, you have the vardon, interlocking, baseball, furyk grip, and they can be strong, weak or neutral. everything else is “bad”. oh, and if you’re not jim furyk, the furyk grip is bad. 🙂

    • Neil

      Jul 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      Near as I can tell it’s pretty much what Hogan espouses in his book, if you have a copy handy.

  5. J

    Jul 19, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Way to represent SD

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Instruction

Functional Golf vs. Optimal Golf

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Optimize this, optimize that. We hear so much about “optimal” golf these days. It’s great that we now have the technology to seemingly optimize every aspect of the golfer, the golf swing, and the golf club, but we have to be realistic in terms of our goals. Ask yourself this question: If I can’t do this optimally, is there a way I can still do it better?

And… how do we define better? That’s easy. More solid impact.

Yes, optimal golf is what we’d all like and perhaps that is the concern of highly skilled players. But for the vast majority of golfers, functional golf might be more realistic. John Jacobs, the best teacher ever, called his approach “practical.” I’m using the term functional in a similar, albeit more specific way. And many of my regular readers know by now that I credit Jacobs for whatever success I’ve had as an instructor.

During a recent lesson, I pointed out a particular swing flaw to a student while we were reviewing his swing on video. He stopped me and said: “See that, what you’re showing me right there? I have done that my whole life. I’ve taken a number of lessons and they all mentioned that very move, and I CANNOT change it. Why is that?”

I thought, man, if I had a few bucks for every time I’ve heard that I’d be, uh,  pretty comfortable.

There are certain habits some golfers simply cannot break no matter how hard they try. For one reason or another, they’re physically incapable of changing. I have observed this for more than 30 years over thousands and thousands of lessons. Does this mean you can’t change the problems these moves may cause? No, absolutely not. There’s a long list of major champions with so called  “flaws” in their swings, from Nicklaus’ flying elbow to Furyk and his quirky move. But what these greats did is find a move that they CAN make, one that’s compatible with their core move.

If you have a move that, for whatever reason, is embedded in the fabric of your golfing DNA, it is probably best you do not beat your head against a wall trying to  change that move, however flawed it may seem. Rather, let’s see if we can find something that blends with that move that you CAN execute.

The golfer I was teaching suffered from fat shots and blocks due to an early release. He simply never learned “lag” or a later hit. So the bottom of the swing arc ended up behind the golf ball more often than not. This golfer has done this for some 20 years, so instead of trying to reinvent the wheel I took a different approach. I asked him to address the golf ball with more weight on his left side. Things got a little better. More weight on the left side, even better, and so on. In other words, we started his motion from a different place, one that was more functional for him.

To help this golfer create a more functional golf swing, I had to move his center of mass forward. It wasn’t optimal perhaps, but his real problem (fat shots) had to be addressed within his current skill set. “If I could just stop drop kicking every shot, I’d be happy,” he said. In other words, we worked out a compromise, a way he could hit the ball more cleanly and enjoy golf more.

As an instructor, that’s pretty much what I do every day. I’m always looking for a compatible motion that balances golf swing equations. “If that is a band aid, you better buy a whole box,” Jacobs would say.

I teach in a community of largely senior golfers. Senior but serious, I call them. They are looking for a way to put the club on the ball more often, which means a better impact position. There is no “in the long run” for seniors. I don’t say, “Let’s make a plan for later” because some are fearful of buying green bananas, let alone working hard on a long-term plan. There is also no “new” when your old move has been around most of your golfing life. Senior golfers, myself included, are on the back nine, much closer to the 18th green than the 1st tee. And most golfers are not going back and starting their round over… believe me. But this doesn’t mean they can’t play better. And they do. Every day.

This lesson likely applies to you even if you are younger and more physically capable. Some things just don’t change, and perhaps the learning psychologists or biomechanists can better tell you why. That’s why I encourage all serious golfers to work with an instructor to identify what moves in their swing simply will not change. Then they should learn to work around them, not try to fix them. That’s the way to better golf.

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Instruction

A Jedi Mind Trick For Improved Target Awareness

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I think all golfers, at some point in their life playing the game of golf, has gotten stuck, or become frozen over the golf ball. Why?  They’re trying to remember which of the 23 different swing thoughts they used for the day performed the best.

The disheartening reality: none of us are going to perform well on a consistent basis with our thoughts being so internally driven. Swing thoughts force our awareness inward. Is the shaft in the correct position? Am I making a proper pressure shift? Was that a reverse pivot? Close that club face! Regardless of the technique you are trying to manage or modify, these kinds of questions make you acquire sensations internally.

To complicate things further, we are taught to look at the golf ball, not the target, while hitting our golf shot. And yet instinctively, in almost all other skills of making a ball or object finish towards a target (throwing a ball or frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, skipping a rock across water, shooting a basket ball) our awareness is not on the ball or the motion itself, but rather the ultimate target.

So, can we develop a skill that allows us to still keep our eye on the ball, like the game of golf encourages, but have awareness of our target, like so many other target sports demand?  Yes, the answer is (third rate Yoda Speak), and the skill can easily be yours.

Here’s where this gets fun. You already have learned this skill set, but under different conditions. Perhaps this example resonates with you. Did you ever play hide-and-seek as a child? Remember how you used to close your eyes and count to 10? During those 10 seconds of having your eyes closed, weren’t you using all of your senses externally, trying to track where your friends were going to hide? Weren’t you, just like a bloodhound, able to go directly to a few of the less skillful hiders’ hiding places and locate them?

Or how about this example. When you are driving down your own local multilane highway, aren’t you aware of all the cars around you while keeping your eyes firmly on the road in front of you? Reconnecting, recognizing and/or developing these skills that all of us already use is the first step in knowing you’re not too far away from doing this with your golf game.

Here’s what I want you to do. Grab a putter and place your golf ball 3 feet away from the hole on a straight putt. Aim your putter, and then look at the hole. As you bring your eyes back to the golf ball, maintain part of your awareness back at the hole. Each successive time your eyes leave your golf ball and head back to the hole, your eyes will be able to confirm your target. It hasn’t moved; it’s still in the same location; your confidence builds.

When you know for certain that your external awareness of the target is locked in while still looking at your golf ball, step up and execute your putt.

The wonderful beauty of this skill set is that you now have the best of both worlds. You are still looking at the golf ball, which gives you a better chance of striking the golf ball solidly… AND you are now target aware just like you are when you are throwing an object at a target.

As always, acquire this skill set from a close target with a slower, smaller motion. If you don’t execute properly, you have a better chance of making the proper corrective assessment from a slower, smaller motion and closer target. As you become more proficient with this skill, allow the target to get farther away and try to add more speed with a larger range of motion.

So give learning this skill set a go. I don’t think there is anything more valuable in playing the game of golf than keeping your “athlete” attached to the target. Become proficient at developing this awareness and you can tell all your friends that the primary reason your scores are getting lower and you’re getting deeper into their wallets is because of Jedi Mind tricks. Good luck!

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6 things to consider before aiming at the flagstick

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One of the most impactful improvements you can make for your game is to hit more greens; you’ll have more birdie opportunities and will avoid bogeys more often. In fact, hitting more greens is the key to golfing success, in my opinion… more so than anything else.

However, there is a misconception among players when it comes to hitting approach shots. When people think “greens,” they tend to only think about the flagstick, when the pin may be the last thing you should be looking at. Obviously, we’d like to stick it on every shot, but shooting at the pin at the wrong time can cost you more pain than gain.

So I’d like to give you a few rules for hitting greens and aiming at the flagstick.

1) Avoid Sucker Pins

I want you to think about Hole No. 12 at Augusta and when the pin is on the far right side of the green… you know, the Sunday pin. Where do the pros try and aim? The center of the green! That’s because the right pin is by all means a sucker pin. If they miss the shot just a touch, they’re in the water, in the bunker, or left with an impossible up-and-down.

Sucker pins are the ones at the extreme sides of the green complex, and especially the ones that go against your normal shot pattern.

So go back to No. 12 with a far right pin, and say your natural shot shape is right-to-left. Would you really aim out over the water and move it towards the pin? That would be a terrible idea! It’s a center of the green shot all day, even for those who work it left-to-right. Learn to recognize sucker pins, and you won’t short side yourself ever again.

2) Are You a Good Bunker Player?

A “sucker pin,” or just a difficult hole location, is often tucked behind a bunker. Therefore, you should ask yourself, “am I a good bunker player?” Because if you are not, then you should never aim at a pin stuck behind one. If I wanted to shoot at pins all day, I’d make sure I was the best lob wedge player around. If you are not a short-game wizard, then you will have a serious problem attacking pins all round.

For those who lack confidence in their short game, or simply are not skilled on all the shots, it’s a good idea to hit to the fat part of the green most of the time. You must find ways to work around your weaknesses, and hitting “away” from the pin isn’t a bad thing, it’s a smart thing for your game.

3) Hitting the Correct Shelf

I want you to imagine a pin placed on top of a shelf. What things would you consider in order to attack this type of pin? You should answer: shot trajectory, type of golf ball, your landing angle with the club you’re hitting, the green conditions, and the consequences of your miss. This is where people really struggle as they forget to take into account these factors.

If you don’t consider what you can and cannot do with the shot at hand, you will miss greens, especially when aiming at a pin on a shelf. Sometimes, you will simply have to aim at the wrong level of the green in order to not bring the big number into play. Remember, if you aim for a top shelf and miss, you will leave yourself with an even more difficult pitch shot back onto that same shelf you just missed.

4) Know your Carry Distances

In my opinion, there is no excuse these days to not know your carry distances down to the last yard. Back when I was growing up, I had to go to a flat hole and chart these distances as best I could by the ball marks on the green. Now, I just spend an hour on Trackman.

My question to you is if you don’t know how far you carry the ball, how could you possibly shoot at a pin with any type of confidence? If you cannot determine what specific number you carry the ball, and how the ball will react on the green, then you should hit the ball in the center of the green. However, if the conditions are soft and you know your yardages, then the green becomes a dart board. My advice: spend some time this off-season getting to know your distances, and you’ll have more “green lights” come Spring.

5) When do you have the Green Light?

Do you really know when it’s OK to aim at the pin? Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help:

  • How are you hitting the ball that day?
  • How is your yardage control?
  • What is the slope of the green doing to help or hinder your ball on the green?
  • Do you have a backstop behind the pin?

It’s thoughts such as these that will help you to determine if you should hit at the pin or not. Remember, hitting at the pin (for amateurs) does not happen too often per nine holes of golf. You must leave your ego in the car and make the best decisions based on what information you have at that time. Simple mistakes on your approach shot can easily lead to bogeys and doubles.

6) When is Any Part of the Green Considered a Success?

There are some times when you have a terrible angle, or you’re in the rough/a fairway bunker. These are times when you must accept “anywhere on the green.”

Left in these situations, some players immediatly think to try and pull off the “miracle” shot, and wonder why they compound mistakes during a round. Learn to recognize if you should be happy with anywhere on the green, or the best place to miss the ball for the easiest up and down.

Think of Ben Hogan at Augusta on No. 11; he said that if you see him on that green in regulation then you know he missed the shot. He decided that short right was better than even trying to hit the green… sometimes you must do this too. But for now analyze your situation and make the best choice possible. When in doubt, eliminate the big numbers!

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